The Highlander’s Vixen (Preview)
“Ye will nae win tonight, lad,” James MacDougall said to his son Blair and ruffled his already messy hair.
Every evening, in the dim light of two little candles and burning ashes in the fireplace, they played cards on a weathered wooden table in the center of their modest cabin. At the table, there were just two chairs, and other than a couple of beds in the other corner and a few kitchen utensils close to the hearth, there was not much else. It was all they had in the world.
“Ye dae ken that I am now old enough tae win at cards, Da? I am nae longer a child.” Blair grinned, playing his next move and winning the trick to his father’s surprise.
“Aye, I suppose so, fourteen winters now and all. Ye’ll be a man soon.” James straightened up, looking down at the cards lying in a pile in the center.
He spread a weather-beaten hand next to them on the table, and the motion drew Blair’s eye. His father’s hand had seen much work back in the day, including casting iron, melting metal, and completing a steady stream of orders. But, the small village’s blacksmith shop was now in decline.
“Am I nae a man now?” Blair asked, waiting for his father to play a card.
James looked up at him after he laid down a three of spades and tilted his head to the side. Blair was nearly his father’s exact image, only younger, and many in the village mentioned it whenever they saw them together. He had nothing of his young, beautiful mother in him who’d had red hair and green eyes. He missed her more than anything else in the world.
“Soon, lad. Ye will ken it once ye become a man. A power will come over ye, and ye will dae somethin’ ye never thought possible before then. Ye will ken when it comes.”
Blair frowned. What does he mean by this? What would come over him? How could he possibly do something he never thought possible? Yet, he smiled and played his card pointedly, knowing his victory was just around the corner. However, his father seemed so distracted that evening, as he had many evenings in the past few months, that he didn’t notice his son’s move.
Every so often, he caught his father looking to the doorway, albeit the late hour.
“Are ye waitin’ for someone, Da?” Blair finally asked once they finished the game, and James hardly seemed to notice that he’d lost.
He stood to his feet with a slight groan. “Nay, nay. Just tired, lad.”
His father was not old, yet he’d seemed to age in the past few months. New lines had formed at the corner of his brown eyes, and a little gray had sprouted in his blond hair.
“I am for bed. I should nae have kept ye up so late, son, for ye’ll be helpin’ me in the morn.”
“Right, Da,” Blair put the cards away as James stoked the fire.
Just then, the night’s heavy silence was broken by a loud bang on the door. Blair, his gut twisting with fear, turned to face his father, who had grown pale and stared blankly at the wood.
“Hide, son, go,” he whispered, pointing to the broken wardrobe where they kept their clothing. “In there. I will deal with this. Just dinnae come out, whatever happens!”
Blair was stunned; he’d never seen his father like this, so… afraid. He obeyed without hesitation, but after being locked within the wardrobe, he also became angry. Finley, the Highlands’ most ruthless creditor, the man without a face, had sent his men after his father. He was certain it was them. Blair had sensed his father desperation, but why take money from such a brute?
He trembled as he heard the group burst into the house once his father opened the door, and he leaned forward to look through the small crack in the wardrobe.
“MacDougall,” a man said, smiling at his father with his blackened teeth. “It seems that ye are a man who cannae pay his debts. It’s a pity, aye?”
Blair trembled in terror at the sound of this voice sounding like a snake slithering. The black-toothed man, undoubtedly the leader, stepped forward as his father started to move backward. Four more people crammed into the cabin with them, making it appear even smaller than before. They were all bearded, had chilly eyes, and greasy hair.
“The business is bad of late, lads. Surely yer boss understands such a thing,” Blair’s father said, his voice trembling. “I can give ye almost all, but I need more time for the last few coins.”
“Well, speakin’ of which,” the leader said, pulling out a dirk and running a finger along its edge, “we will double the debt because it is a few days late.”
“Nay! Dinnae dae that!” James cried, only to have all five gazes snap to him, and the black-toothed man reared back and hit his fist into Blair’s father’s jaw, sending him to the ground.
The man spat in his face and said, “We can dae whatever we like. I am nae the one who asked for a loan of money. We are given orders, and we are given the freedom tae handle them as we please. Are we nae, lads?”
“Aye,” they said in unison, chuckling a little as Blair’s father tried to stand up again.
“I just need a little more time if ye want the debt tae be doubled. But I swear tae ye, ye will get all that ye need.”
The man nodded, showing his black teeth once more and still caressing his knife. “I dinnae believe in the promises of men such as yerself, MacDougall. A man who has nae paid his debts in some time is nae a man tae be trusted.”
Blair watched as the man walked around his father, stroking the knife along James’ arm while the others watched, their hands crossed and wicked grins on their faces.
They enjoy this.
Blair could hear himself breathing so loud that he put a hand over his mouth to quiet it, clutching the dirk at his side with his other arm.
“Aye, but it will be different now. There are plans—” his father began, but the men just laughed.
“Is it nae the same with all the men, lads? They are always beggin’ for mercy when it was Finley who gave them mercy in the first place and money when they most needed it.” The man stood behind James, gripping his shoulders as he spoke. “Ye have a son, dae ye nae, MacDougall? Children are useful, especially sons. They could pay off debts, work hard, and be of use while their fathers die as useless pigs.” He kicked the back of his father’s legs until his knees bent, and he knelt on the ground.
Blair sucked in a breath. His heart resounded like titanic footsteps in his ears, but he could not tear his eyes away. Frozen to the spot, he felt as though time slowed, marching on only bit by bit, like the beating of a slow drum towards doom. Doom. The air stunk with it.
“Nay, please. Me son has nothin’ tae dae with me debts. I will handle them meself.”
“I think the time for that has passed,” the black-toothed man said from above him. “What dae ye think, lads?”
“Aye, true enough, Sean. Ye handle him.” Another man nodded, and Sean, the leader, chuckled.
“Ye heard them, MacDougall,” Sean said.
Blair saw the glint of the knife in the candlelight and its slow movement towards his father. He also saw his father turn to the wardrobe. He knew very well that it did not close properly, and the crack was enough to see through. He caught Blair’s eye, and he shook his head. It was then that Sean struck, pulling the knife along his father’s neck, cutting his throat.
A scream built up inside Blair, but it did not come out as he watched his father get thrown to the ground, forever silenced. Blair’s every muscle tensed, his heart ached, and the press of tears pushed behind his eyes. Sean wiped his blade before he sheathed it as if it was the easiest thing he’d just done in the world.
“Search the house then, lads. See if there is anythin’ of value he merely did nae wish tae share with us.” The men began to move, and Blair, unable to think of anything else, burst out of the wardrobe in a flash, thrusting his dagger into the first man he found.
They would pay for this death, for the end of his family. The man screamed, and then collapsed to the ground. Blair’s strength pulsed through his body as he thrashed and struck, stabbed, and cut. The men’s cries filled the cabin, but he didn’t hear them. Only his father’s silence could be heard, and it was louder than anything else.
Finally, he found himself panting, his knife at his side, staring at what he’d done. The men were all bleeding and still on the ground. He blinked once, twice, wondering if it was all a dream. It was not.
Tears welled up in his eyes, but he knew he couldn’t stay for long. He hunched over his father’s body, sobbing uncontrollably until the ringing in his ears subsided. When he stood up again, he knew he had to leave. Blair had only made things worse.
“A power will come over ye, and ye will dae somethin’ ye never thought possible before then. Ye will ken when it comes.”
Laggan, Scotland, 1649, Fourteen years later
Clan MacPherson Lands
“Ada, ye will drive me tae distraction, lass! Where have ye been? Ye were meant tae eat with me an hour ago,” Graeme MacPherson said from the head of the table from his laird’s position.
Angrily, Ada sat down next to him, and she picked up her glass of wine. It was already filled, and the place had been set, waiting for her. She took a long sip and stared back at her father. At nineteen years old, she was ready to be free of her father’s control. Making him wait for her at dinnertime was the least of what she wanted to do.
“I was readin’ in the library,” she said innocently and began to eat.
“Nay, ye bloody well were nae. The men could nae find ye again. Ye will drive Blair mad, so ye will.” Graeme drank his wine angrily as well, and she let out a breath as she chewed her food.
Making Blair angry was something, at least.
It might ruffle a feather in that perfect composure of his.
Blair MacDougall had been frustrating her ever since he started working as her guard. He was always infuriatingly calm, no matter what she did to try and rile him up.
“Fine then. I was readin’ near the library in one of the secret passages. What does it matter? It is nae as if I went outside of the castle, yer worst fear.” She rolled her eyes. “I was safe, Father, and that is all that matters tae ye. Nae only that, but I thought ye would feel safer now that the old Laird Grant is dead. There is nae one left who wishes tae harm us.”
Laird Grant, whose castle resided a few hours away, was an old rival of her father’s. He had fallen in love with Ada’s aunt many years ago and proposed marriage, but her aunt had refused him. In his anger and jealousy, he took it out on her and killed her. Then, in another act of revenge, he’d attempted to kidnap Ada and Ella, but failed. Since then, her father had kept them hidden and protected them beyond what was necessary, all to avoid that happening again. But only a few months before, her old guard and now brother-in-law, Cameron Hay, had killed Grant in a fight when he’d tried to take Ella away again. Yet her father still did not believe that the danger was gone.
She and her father had had this conversation a thousand times, and each time, Ada seemed to get nowhere. She thought things would be better once her sister Ella had gotten married to Cameron, who turned out to be Laird Grant’s heir. But no. He was still as protective as ever, even if he was a bit gentler and more loving these days.
“There is always one who wishes tae harm a beautiful young lass like yerself, Ada. If only ye would listen tae me, allow me tae teach ye of the ways of the world since ye dinnae ken of them yerself.”
She gripped her fork so tightly her knuckles turned white. “And why dae ye think I dinnae ken of the world, Father? I could learn a few things if ye would allow me the normal freedom that comes with being a laird’s daughter. I ken that Ella and Cameron dinnae plan tae keep their child indoors for the rest of her days, if she turns out tae be a girl.”
“Ha!” her father laughed, tearing into his piece of bread as he spoke. “Cameron will see the light once he becomes a father himself. There is nae greater fear than losin’ yer child.”
“Father, if only ye could see that I am ready for the world. I am ready tae experience things and make friends, to feel as though I have me own life and nae one contained inside of these stone walls.”
She took in the dim gray stone of her family’s castle. A fire was crackling in the hearth, and the food in front of her was plentiful and tasty. Her father did not harm her, and she was free to learn whatever she wanted, reading whatever she could find in the library that piqued her interest. Home was supposed to be a safe haven where one could feel loved, protected, and cared for. And, while all of that was true, her home, her safe haven, felt more like a prison. She desired more than anything to see more of the world beyond those walls.
Now that Ella is married, he will perhaps allow me tae visit her on me own.
“Perhaps it is time that ye too get married,” her father grumbled between bites, and Ada sighed.
He did not listen to her heart, and she wondered why he was hardened against her now after so recently losing Ella to marriage.
Ada said nothing, and they finished their meal in silence until Graeme dismissed her. “Ye will go straight tae yer room, lass,” he said. “That is yer punishment for disappearin’ today. Angus will take ye.”
She nodded in defeat, leaving her father behind without so much as a good night, and she met the older guard outside the main hall door. She reserved a smile for him, however. Ever since she and Ella were little, he had always been kind to her, along with Darren, who often watched them as well. But now that it was just her in the castle, she no longer needed to be two guards.
She was alone.
“Off tae bed now, lass?”
“Aye, Angus,” she said, walking alongside him.
As they went up the steps, Ada was lost in thought. She twisted a finger around her ginger hair, hanging loose as usual. It was one of the small, perhaps ridiculous, ways she tried to experience a little freedom for herself. But she was at a loss.
Outside her door, she bid Angus goodnight and went inside to sit by her crackling fire. Picking up the stolen whiskey she usually absconded with from her father’s study, Ada poured herself a glass. The nights were lonely now without her sister by her side. She was happy for Ella and her newfound happiness with her husband. But still, something was missing in her own life. Without her sister, she had no confidante, no true friend. Her father’s forced isolation meant she was on her own.
I will make me escape one day, just as I told Ella before.
But she’d hesitated after her sister’s marriage, hopeful that her father had changed. However, now she knew that it would still be the same until she began to fight back. Taking a sip, Ada started to make her plans.
Why did I agree tae this job?
Blair had asked himself that nearly every day, multiple times a day, since Ella and Cameron had married and he’d been asked to return to MacPherson Castle to serve as Ada’s guard until she married. He had been Cameron’s man-at-arms, but he and Ella thought this would be best. He’d returned a few months before, and it’d been one crazy day after another. Ada MacPherson couldn’t sit still and follow orders. She made his job a hell of an ordeal.
And that particular instance was no exception. He was standing beneath the tree in the castle courtyard, watching Ada strain to reach a kitten. He hadn’t arrived in time before she made the decision to climb the tree and stop her. Whenever the guard changed, the lass always found a way to do something risky. Damn it!
“What in God’s name are ye doin’, Lady Ada?” he called and turned when he saw a group of young children hurry into the courtyard.
“See? I told ye the lady was up there tryin’ tae get our kitten!” one of them cried.
Blair rolled his eyes and rubbed a frustrated hand over his face.
“I am tryin’ tae help a poor creature in need of assistance,” Ada called back, turning to look at him through the branches. Her long ginger hair was hanging over her shoulders, and even though she pinned him with an angry glare, he was struck with just how lovely she was.
Ada is always lovely. There is never a time when she is nae, even when she is acting so foolish.
He sighed, trying to talk some sense into himself. Thinking about Ada as a woman did him little good. She was his duty, and he needed to be able to fulfill said duty without such unsettling thoughts about how bonny she was.
“Ye ken that ye could come and help me with this, Blair,” she accused, “instead of just watchin’ me, since ye think me so frail and unable tae handle me own affairs.”
“Ye are nae able, Lady Ada,” he began, but he paused when he saw the interested looks on the children’s faces. “Ye may fall, and then where will we be?”
“I have climbed trees before!” she yelled as she strained for the kitten, but it meowed and crawled back further onto another branch.
“Ye can dae it, me lady!” one little girl with hair of gold cried, and the rest of them clapped their hands in encouragement. “It is me kitten, sir, and she told me she’d help.” The lass stood beside him, looking up at Ada with awe.
He understood the look entirely, even though Ada’s reckless actions would soon be the death of him. Despite his anger at what she was doing, he couldn’t help but smile, just a little.
She was a conundrum. She liked to act spiky, constantly snapping back or teasing, trying to get away with things. But at the same time, she had a heart of gold. She’d do anything for her sister, and now, she was risking her life to help a silly kitten down from a tree to make one of the little girls happy.
“Almost there!” Ada had moved to another branch, and Blair’s heart flipped as he saw it was too weak to hold her.
He stepped forward as she reached out for the small white cat. “Be careful!” he cried, his sudden outburst surprising her.
Her scream pierced through him as the branch broke, and then so many things happened at once. Blair raced forward, pushing the children out of the way so that they wouldn’t get hit as Ada fell from the tree. He made it just in time, his arms outstretched to catch her before she reached the ground.
“Shite!” he cursed as they both fell to the grass, and the cat hissed, scratching Blair’s face before scampering off.
The children dashed after it, not before thanking her, and then it was just them in the courtyard, breathing heavily. His arms remained tight around her, holding her firmly as his heartbeat slowed. Her hair tickled his face, and he swallowed, trying to ignore the sensation of relishing her proximity.
“Lady Ada, are ye all right?” he asked.
“I am well,” she groaned, trying to wriggle free of his grasp. “I wish ye would call me Ada, though. Lady Ada is far too formal. I call ye Blair, after all.”
He sat up and aided her in standing, brushing dirt from his clothes as he did so. Blair’s eyes moved anxiously over her body, assessing her as she straightened her skirts and removed the leaves from her hair and dress.
“Are ye sure ye’re all right?”
“Aye,” she said, but he could see her hands shaking.
He yearned to reach out for her, to pull her close and comfort her, to smell her scent, which always drove him mad. It reminded me of meadow flowers, something wild, earthy, and pure. It encompassed everything she was. To avoid the temptation, he took a step back and wrapped his hands around his back. It would not end well for either of them.
“Good,” he said, then replacing his calm tone with one of slightly veiled rage, he asked, “Then why in the bloody hell dae ye keep tryin’ tae kill me, woman?”
It wasn’t just the fall that had Ada’s heart racing a mile a minute and her lungs filling up with hard, fast breaths. It was Blair and how close they’d just been. He hadn’t let go after they’d first fallen, and she’d savored the feel of his hard chest against her for a few seconds. It had been bliss to hear his rapid heartbeat and the sound of his breath. Until he spoke and ruined the moment, that is.
Now, he was looking at her with jaw-clenching fury, and she stood a little taller, annoyed that even when he was frustrating her, he aroused a desire within her that was never quenched.
“Kill ye?” She scoffed and put her hands on her hips. “If I meant tae kill ye, I would have done it a long time ago. Ye can believe that,” she said, stepping a bit closer.
It was the first time in a long time that she saw him show some emotion. He was like a brick wall, in more ways than one. Blair MacDougall was essentially a tall wall of muscle. From his jawline to his calf, he was muscled all over. She did not have to see underneath his clothes to know what she would find there. His uniform stretched tightly over his body, and whenever he’d held her close during one of the many times he’d saved her, she could feel just how hard and unyielding his body was.
With his close-cut blond hair and brown eyes, Blair was handsome too, and even though he was often serious, there was a softness to his gaze at times. He was kind, even though he might not wish anyone to know it.
Blair rolled his eyes. “For God’s sake, Ada, I ken now why yer father continues tae keep ye locked up inside this bloody place even though Laird Grant is now dead at Cameron’s hand. Ye are irresponsible and reckless and for nae reason.”
Anger flooded her along with the other heat that filled her whenever he was near. “I was helpin’ that little girl and savin’ the poor creature!” She pointed at the door to the courtyard. “Dae ye think that is irresponsible or reckless?”
“When it is goin’ tae endanger yer life, then aye,” he said back to her in a low tone, his eyes sparkling with fire. “Ye dinnae seem tae consider others. There is yer father who worries about ye constantly, and then there is me, set tae watch ye, and ye continue tae dae these dangerous things that could hurt us both. This is now the third time in our acquaintance that I have had tae catch ye, lass. How many more times must there be before ye realize that what ye are doin’ is dangerous?”
They were standing close, and she wanted to be angry, to feel completely enraged. She wanted her fury to take control of everything, but her body still reacted to him. Why couldn’t Blair see she was a prisoner there? She wanted nothing more than to be free, and her reckless actions were her way of gaining some freedom while also trying to avoid the boredom that came with her confinement. There was also the fact that she was a little clumsy, but that was unimportant.
“I dinnae see why I need tae have a guard any longer, now that Laird Grant is dead. There is nae danger now, and yet I am forced tae be constantly watched like a child with a nanny.” Blair bristled at that. “And if ye had nae scared me, I would nae have fallen this time. Ye had tae go and yell at me, and then I fell. I nearly had the kitten in me hands!”
She noticed then a red line across his cheek, and she blushed, realizing that the kitten had done it. But she would never apologize for that. Never in a thousand years would she apologize to this ridiculous man.
The cat appeared in the courtyard again, and pushing away from Blair, Ada went to it, brushing by him as she did. She tingled with the realization that his hand had touched her skirts. As she cooed and knelt to pick up the kitten, she thought about how much she’d wanted Blair to touch her ever since they’d first known each other. She thought she’d encouraged him with her light flirtations, but Blair was having none of it.
Every night the man guards me inside me bedroom, and nothin’! It is as if I repulse him, or he thinks of me only as a child.
“All ye can think about is that kitten at a time like this? Dae ye nae even wish tae apologize?” he asked from behind her.
Angrily, Ada spun around with the kitten in her hands. “What should I apologize for? Ye did nae have tae come and find me. Ye are nae required tae dae anythin’!”
“It is me job, Lady Ada, tae protect ye!”
She noticed how he used her title again, even though he had forgotten it before. The little girl returned to the courtyard, and smiling, Ada dropped the kitten into her arms.
“Keep him safe now, lass,” she chirped while Blair stood angrily at her back.
When the little girl darted off, Ada straightened and turned to give him a piece of her mind but her father’s angry voice boomed outside the courtyard.
“Ada! Come here, now! Me study.”
She could hear his angry footsteps as he walked away, and she followed him without looking at Blair, who was looking smug, no doubt.
What day is complete without another scolding from Father?
Inside the study, her father was pacing, but when she opened the door, he paused and stared at her with his sharp blue eyes.
“Why must I hear about yer reckless acts from the servants? Ye fell again from a tree, and Blair had tae catch ye once more? This is the third time ye’ve fallen, lass, and only because ye refuse tae listen tae reason!”
“I did nae realize that climbin’ things was against the rules in the castle,” she said stiffly, shutting the door behind her.
“Nay, I suppose nae, but clearly, ye are nae skilled at it, and Blair has been there every time tae make sure that ye dinnae hurt yerself.”
She swallowed, clutching her hands behind her back.
Dae nae think kindly of the man. He was only doin’ his job. It is nae as if cares whether or nae I really hurt meself.
A tiny voice inside her told her that wasn’t true, but it was far better to think of Blair in a bad light than to think of him in the way she really wanted to.
“Then, ye have nothin’ tae worry about, Father. Yer praised soldier has done his duty yet again. He has saved me, and now we can move on with our lives.”
“Nay, we cannae, Ada,” her father said, rubbing a hand through his red hair before he sat down and picking up a piece of paper. “Sit here,” he said, pointing to the chair across from the desk.
Ada’s belly filled with nerves as she noted his serious tone. Slowly, she took her seat and wondered why he’d always treated Ella with more kindness. Even when her sister had done something he disliked, he hardly ever screamed at her.
It is because he hates me for what I did tae Mother.
Ada’s thoughts wandered to the past as her father spoke about responsibility and not acting like a child. She remembered overhearing a conversation between him and his sister, Isla. She would never forget it.
“Maura would never have gotten ill if she hadn’t had Ada, Isla. Ye ken that’s true.”
“How can ye say such a thing about yer own child?” Isla had said in return. “Is she nae precious?”
Ada remembered sinking back against the wall when her father stood.
“She is, of course she is, yet Maura was precious tae me—me only wife, the love of me heart. And now she’s gone. The lasses now have nay mother. We should nae have had another child. It was too much for her.”
Ada had put a hand over her mouth to keep her sobs quiet, and then she’d left, unable to listen to any of it anymore. She’d only been eight at the time, and ever since then, she’d noticed her father’s behavior towards her. He was always angry, no matter what she did. She knew that he was punishing her forever, and now that her sister, his favorite, was gone, it would only get worse.
“Are ye even listenin’ tae me, lass?” her father boomed, his forehead crinkled as he paused to stare at her angrily.
“Aye, Father, I am listenin’,” she lied, standing a little taller.
She could never let him see the way the past had hurt her. For she was the one who’d killed her mother, his wife, and nothing could fix that. And in his mind, she would always be the baby who did that.
“I dinnae see how ye can expect tae live on yer own or run a household on yer own when ye act so irresponsibly! Climbin’ a tree when ye could have nearly broken yer neck! And ye hurt Blair besides.”
Och, precious Blair. Me father cares more for him than he does for me. Blair has never disappointed him.
“When are ye goin’ tae grow up, Ada?” he cried, pounding a fist into the desk.
Ada’s eyes fluttered to the papers he’d been holding, where his fist had hit. What were they for?
“I am grown up, Father. This is what grown women wish tae dae: be free. Men dinnae understand because they wish tae trap us forever and keep us compliant for their benefit.” She crossed her arms and turned her face to the side. Shockingly, her father sighed instead of coming back with another angry outburst.
“It is enough now, Ada. I have done me best with ye both. I have tried tae keep ye safe and tae love ye as I could, but it is time now that I let ye go. I can dae this nae longer.”
She turned to face him, her heart in her throat. But she didn’t see what she hoped to see on his face. His expression did not hold favorable promise.
“What dae ye mean?” she asked, a cold prickle of fear tingling on the back of her neck.
“Ye will marry.” He stood, not meeting her eyes. “I made this decision weeks ago. Yer betrothed will be here in a few hours. It was goin’ tae be a surprise, but I think it best that ye ken about it in case ye’re plannin’ tae dae anything stupid.” He shot her with his glare. “Marriage is the best thing for ye, Ada, for I can nae longer look after ye.”
Ada gasped, and as she rose, she felt every muscle in her body tense. She was ready to fight. And yet the shock had robbed her of the vehemence she wanted to instill into her tone.
“It was just the same with Ella,” she said, trying her best to hold the tears back. “Ye could nae let us be as we wished, and so ye forced her tae marry, actin’ as if we are just problems that ye need tae rid yerself of.”
Before she allowed him to respond, she turned to rush out the door, slamming it behind her. Tears were running down her cheeks before she made it back to her room, and she barely heard the usual footsteps racing after her.
I am getting married.
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